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The New Religion of Food

June 8, 2015


A recent National Post article, titled ‘The new religion: How the emphasis on ‘clean eating’ has created a moral hierarchy for food’, introduces a new cultural phenomenon. The awareness of over-processed foods and the diet industry’s answer has built somewhat of a code of conduct for those who wish to live by a righteous and ethical standard. Perhaps the most eye-opening statement in the article comes when the author points out that “the rise in food movements has coincided with a decline of religion in society, with many people seeking familiar values such as purity, ethics, goodness.” She continues, “But these movements also tend to encourage behaviors that have steered a generation away from religion: Judgment, self-righteousness, an us-versus-them mentality.”  

It’s interesting that a generation which is seemingly tired of the “restraints” of religion has found a safe-haven within a dietary trend which brings more limitations than most religions. What’s going on here? As a fitness advocate I have come across the wide-range of different fitness philosophies and have also encountered what the author diagnoses as pharisaical snobbery. These can be found in routines, diets, and even sleeping patterns. The attraction to certain ways of life has two legs on which it stands, one is the feeling of belonging to a group of people who have a mission, and the other is the feeling of well-being which comes from adherence to any fitness and nutrition routine. While the connections between these attractions and religion might be quite obvious, the veracity of the underlying message has been a problem in religion for centuries: an embodied philosophy is much more powerful than an abstract one.

Within these dietary rites we find what Christians have been struggling to represent in recent decades, a tangible, concrete representation of the virtues which we proclaim. Take for example the growth of veganism. They practice self-denial by only eating fruits and vegetables, they practice community by having online message boards, and they have philosophical outreach through stores dedicated to their mission. They can literally taste the virtue they profess. They allow their bodies to reveal the message they have adhered their lives to.

The Greek and Roman philosophers of old understood that a philosophy unlived is not a philosophy at all; rather it becomes some sort of wishful thinking from which no one improves or lives a life of worth and teaching. Take for example the incredible witness of a man like Gandhi. Through his decision to live out a philosophical resolution of fasting, he was able to witness to something much greater than himself. This then led to the change of an entire country and a lasting impact on the generations to come. It was by living, in a very real way, that he was able to witness without needing to say much until he was asked why he was doing what he was doing and how he did so with so much joy.

I am reminded of a quote from one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, St. John Paul II, who said “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible.” What these food movements are experiencing through a morality based on dietary restrictions is at the very heart of Christianity. When God became flesh and came into the world he dropped the curtain between the abstract and the concrete, and because He did this, Christians are not allowed to live in the abstract. It seems that in a time such as ours in so much need of missionary disciples, this basic biblical principle must experience a jolt of interest. We can surely talk about what needs to be done but it takes doing what needs to be done to make any sort of impact.

When a vegan or a gluten-free advocate invites others into their way of life, pay attention to how they do it. They give them reasons why the lifestyle is so attractive, they show them how it will change and enhance their lives, they might even cook or serve them a dish to show them how delicious the life can be. But it doesn’t stop there. They then continue the relationship to help them make food decisions and might even meet them at the supermarket to help them fill up their baskets with the appropriate grocery list. The relationship ends up becoming a very important factor with continued adherence and motivation. The advocate has then essentially and very tangibly brought the other into the mission and life of their philosophy.  

To be sure this cultural phenomenon has its defects as most do, but I do think that there is something to be learned here. We Christians must learn, once again, to put flesh and experience on our message. Pope Francis’ whole modus operandi is to go out beyond our comfortable limits and bring Christ to the disenfranchised, the lost and the forsaken. While we may not be asking others to adhere to strict dietary law, we can also present a way of life that can change and enhance the practitioner, much more than any diet or exercise routine. Your body speaks a language. What language are we speaking as the body of Christ if we live in the cyclical danger of mental preparedness but never physically go out and bring others into our mission? Can those who you bring into your life tangibly see the virtues you profess?

Perhaps one concrete way for those of us who desire to evangelize to put ourselves into the practice of an embodied message is to adhere ourselves to a diet and fitness routine. By forcing ourselves out of our head and into our bodies we can then palpably experience what the Church is begging us to do. We have the greatest message the world has ever known, however the message is meant to be an embodied one. We can increase our ability to bring such a message to others if we are in control and knowledgeable about the one entity it takes to bring such a message: our bodies.